While in graduate school many years ago I subscribed briefly to the journal of the Mercersburg Society, which claims to carry on the legacy of the 19th-century Mercersburg movement. This movement was named for the city in Pennsylvania where the German Reformed Church in the United States had its seminary. Two of its faculty, John Williamson Nevin and church historian Philip Schaff, spearheaded an effort within that denomination to recover something of the catholic roots of the Reformed churches, emphasizing, among other things, the place of the institutional church and its means of grace in the lives of believers, the “mystical presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, and the need for a prescribed liturgy rooted in the ancient patterns of worship.

The German-born Schaff is, of course, known for his multivolume History of the Christian Church and his three-volume Creeds of Christendom, a handy source book for even a nontheologian like me. Virtually all of his works can be read online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Nevin was born and raised a Presbyterian, studied at Princeton Seminary and later affiliated with the German Reformed Church. He was early confronted by the revivalistic “New Measures” that had swept through American protestantism at the turn of the 19th century. He wrote his Anxious Bench as a critique of these measures and as an affirmation of the institutional church and its ordinary means of grace.

Contemporary evangelicals would do well to familiarize themselves with Mercersburg, a school that stands in contrast to the revivalist strain that has dominated the evangelical movement (at least in the US) for some 200 years. In so doing they might stand a chance of immunizing themselves against the various forms of evangelical Christianity revolving around strong personalities and the techniques of communication at the expense of the  institutional church with its divinely-mandated task of preaching the Word and administering the sacraments.

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